California Lawmakers Call for Better Conditions at Immigration Detention Facilities

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An immigration detainee stands near an US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) grievance box at the Theo Lacy Facility. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

A growing chorus of U.S. lawmakers from California are calling for better safety standards and investigations into facilities that hold immigrant detainees.

In a report released this week, the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General outlined problems at a sample of detention facilities throughout the country. Agents say they found "significant issues" at four of the facilities, including Santa Ana City Jail.

Earlier this year, inspectors found dirty, moldy facilities at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange County and rotten meat being served to detainees. They also found that many of the facility's phones were broken, there was an excessive use of solitary confinement, detainees did not have a way to properly file grievances and high and low-risk detainees were often housed together.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ended the contract with Santa Ana in February after city officials voted unanimously to phase it out by 2020.

DHS inspectors wrote that a Santa Ana jail guard yelled at immigrant detainees "in a hostile and prolonged rant" that included the threat of a lock down. Detainees there also reported long waits for medical care. Auditors also found that guards regularly strip searched all immigrant detainees, which goes against newer policies that state immigrant detainees should only be strip searched with reasonable suspicion based on “specific and articulable facts that would lead a reasonable officer to believe that a specific detainee is in possession of contraband.”

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Immigrant detainees are typically held in three types of facilities: Local jails run by cities and counties, privately operated facilities and institutions run by ICE. In 2017, about two-thirds of all detainees were held in privately operated prisons, according to data from ICE.

However, many county jails, like Theo Lacy, use older detention standards. On Friday, Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) led a group of Senate Democrats to urge House and Senate Appropriation subcommittees to force all facilities to meet the newer standards, known as the ICE 2011 Performance-Based National Detention Standards.

The senators wrote in a letter that "poor conditions and inhumane treatment of immigrants within ICE detention facilities continue to fuel tragic and unjust consequences."

"Immigrants suffer mentally and physically – some have even lost their lives – as a result of dangerous, cruel, and unsanitary conditions and medical negligence within some facilities,” the letter says.

Currently, none of the 11 city or county jails in California that hold immigrant detainees uses the higher standards. However, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new law this fall mandating that all facilities in the state move to those higher standards.

Many privately operated immigration detention facilities on the newer standards also have medical and safety problems, though, according to reports by ICE, auditors and activists. Three inmates died in three months at the Adelanto Detention Facility in San Bernardino County. ICE’s own investigators found problems at the facility, including health care delays, poor record keeping and failures to properly report sexual assaults.

Last month Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) called for an investigation of ICE detention conditions at the Contra Costa West County Detention Facility in Richmond. DeSaulnier toured the facility after allegations surfaced that immigrant detainees there were being confined to their cells for 23 hours a day, and in some cases prevented from using the restroom.

Read the latest Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General report below.